This was a match for which to be thankful.
It was a searingly cold day in Chicago: so a day to be thankful for watching the game on TV. We can be thankful too that New York's Red Bulls came away with a 1-1 draw, a marked improvement on last season's April-visit to Bridgeview, which brought us a 3-1 walloping.
For the first time since the season began, RBNY got though 90 minutes without giving up a penalty - thanks! Jamison Olave got through a game without incurring any senseless acts of adjudication from the referee - grazie! No one was sent off - cheers! No one appears to have been injured - gracias! And, in a MLS season which is rapidly degenerating into a who-can-go-running-to-the-Disciplinary-Committee-fastest pantomime of post-match grievances, we can be hopeful RBNY will stay out of DisCo's deliberations this week - merci! (Actually, let's put the gratitude on ice for the last one...DisCo moves in mysterious ways.)
Nor was it just the small mercies winning our gratitude. This is the first season of the continuity era, and we saw plenty of continuity. Of the starting lineup, 10 of the 11 were carry-overs from last year's squad. Jonny Steele got his place back on the left wing, and gamboled joyfully up and down his flank, enjoying his match-up against Chicago's stand-in right back, Matt Watson.
Even new man, Richard Eckersley, managed his own tribute to the club's theme for 2014. His third start for RBNY continued his (so far/we hope) brief pattern of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The pattern started with the penalty he conceded in Vancouver, moved on to an unfortunate shot to the groin against Colorado, and this week turned into a futile effort to block Jeff Larentowicz's goal-bound header on the line.
Instead, Eckersley (taking the man-on-the-post position at a defensive corner) managed the slightest hint of an obstruction of Luis Robles's (most likely ill-fated) effort to stop the ball breaching the goal-line. The result, in the game's 6th minute, was the extension of RBNY's latest essay on continuity: the team has conceded the first goal of the game in every one of its three league matches to date.
Though the Red Bulls had started in lively fashion - Lloyd Sam hit the side netting in the 4th minute - Chicago did not score against the run of play. Bountiful RBNY possession punctuated by punchy counter-attacks from the Fire was the run of play. The stats tell the story most effectively: New York had 60% of possession and 80% of the yellow cards. Pass, pass, pass; interception, counter, foul: this was RBNY's match from start to finish.
We have come to expect this. This team tended to have the better of the possession stats last year, but it didn't always win, or even draw - certainly not in the early part of the season. RBNY went to Bridgeview in April 2013 and generated a very similar set of stats: won the possession battle, scored one goal from 10 shots attempted, and allowed Chicago to fire off 13 shots, of which four were on target. The difference between 2013 and 2014: the Fire netted three goals from its efforts last time around.
That just one goal was allowed this time was entirely down to Luis Robles. Tim Cahill got one shot on target for the match - a sly, glancing header from a set piece, bulleting under the crossbar when the 'keeper just managed to tip it over. The 'keeper was Robles. He was equally effective when called upon to defend his goal from opponents.
The reflexes of Luis Robles have now bailed RBNY out of a match which could easily have been lost in consecutive weeks. There is no crime in profiting from the skills of a good goalkeeper, but the team is living dangerously. Last year, Robles faced more shots on goal than all but two 'keepers in MLS. In the early stages of this year, he is once more third on the list of shots faced. The absence of clean sheets to his name this season makes its own point: you cannot expect a 'keeper to tidy up behind a leaky defense indefinitely; some shots will squeeze through.
Still, the team is improving in that regard. Vancouver tallied 10 shots on goal in the season-opener; last week, Colorado struck six on target; this round, Chicago got three. Not a bad trajectory for a defense which has yet to start the same four players in consecutive matches.
But RBNY didn't win the Supporters' Shield last year through its defense. It won the Shield because it accumulated more points than any team in MLS, and that happened because RBNY scored more goals than any team in MLS. Through three games in 2014, the Red Bulls haven't outscored any opponent.
This too represents continuity: RBNY also had two draws and a loss to its name after three matches in 2013. Much like last year, there is no cause for panic, but there is plenty of reason to be frustrated.
In 2013, there was the excuse that Mike Petke was still getting to grips with his sudden ascent to the head coaching position. Players were new, tactics were in flux, and the coach's mettle was untested. No such excuse this year, so the team is finding surprising new ways to stifle itself.
Petke started Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry up front in Chicago, the first time we've seen what had seemed likely to be RBNY's go-to strike pairing in preseason. Great - it makes a lot of sense, particularly in light of yet another ordinary performance from Cahill and Dax McCarty in central midfield last week. He is Australia's all-time leading scorer in international soccer and he has to start somewhere.
Unfortunately, what we saw against Chicago was an awful lot of Cahill playing as something resembling a back-to-goal striker, linking neatly with Henry in his drop-deep-or-wide-left mode, which is a combination which doesn't get either of them in position to shoot very often. They managed one shot on goal each - and Cahill's was aimed at his own 'keeper.
No surprise, therefore, that RBNY's goal in this game came from an unexpected source: Dax McCarty, who sidefooted past Sean Johnson from 12 yards, after the ball squirted out to him from a comically inept effort by both teams to handle a Thierry Henry corner.
Of all the moments to be thankful for, McCarty's was perhaps the greatest - not just because it was the equalizer, but also because it came just 15 minutes after the Fire scored. Watching RBNY's sputtering early-season play is hard enough without the added agony of needing a goal. Thank you, Dax.
After McCarty tied the scores in the 21st minute, the teams settled into a sporadically entertaining hour of well-matched football, of which the most viewed moment will almost certainly be Peguy Luyindula's inventive effort to glance a Lloyd Sam cross past Sean Johnson using only his scrotum.
Had Luyindula connected with his knee instead of..um...softer tissue, he would have scored, and we would once again be praising his ability to drive this team forward. He started the sequence which almost finished his future opportunities for paternity with an incisive pass to Sam. His absence from the starting lineup was perhaps the most discussed issue amongst RBNY fans before this match kicked off.
All who saw it have a fond memory of Luyindula's performance as a central attacking midfielder in RBNY's Shield-clinching regular season finale last year. But we haven't seen him start in that role so far this season. The team can win without Luyindula, but unless it does, the call for his inclusion in the starting lineup - AS A MIDFIELDER - will only grow stronger.
Maybe we'll see that happen next week, which is another reason to be thankful for this week's match: it's over. The next game is at home, where Petke is generally a little more inclined to unleash his attacking options.